Climate change: How world can still take action despite coronavirus – Dr Richard Dixon

This year’s UN climate change summit should be postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak, but that means 2021 will have to be a year of two Conferences of the Parties (Cops), writes Dr Richard Dixon.
The next United Nations climate change summit was due to be held at the SEC in Glasgow in November, but has been postponed until next year (Picture: John Devlin)The next United Nations climate change summit was due to be held at the SEC in Glasgow in November, but has been postponed until next year (Picture: John Devlin)
The next United Nations climate change summit was due to be held at the SEC in Glasgow in November, but has been postponed until next year (Picture: John Devlin)

Last week the UN announced that the COP26 global climate talks, scheduled for November in Glasgow, would move to 2021 because of the danger of the coronavirus pandemic to the talks themselves but also the disruption to the necessary preparatory meetings in the run-up to November.

This is psychologically disappointing for those of us who have been psyching ourselves up for the talks to be in November. New staff have been hired, deposits paid on hotel and hostel rooms, venues found for events and planning started for 100,000s of people to march through the city.

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But the postponement is of course completely understandable and reduces the risk of the kind of failure we saw at Copenhagen in 2009, when world leaders turned up with no homework done because they had been too busy dealing with the global financial crisis. Instead there will be time for the kind of international diplomacy that is needed to make actual progress at these talks.

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Also key is access to the talks for all countries. It might well be that coronavirus is judged to be under control in the UK by November but the virus is only just reaching most African countries, so it will peak later, bringing the danger that whole delegations from poorer countries would not be allowed to attend or even enter the UK. Global talks about climate change that aren’t really global would be completely unacceptable.

Two-year gap is inexcusable

Going ahead later means all countries can take part fairly. It also means that there might be a new President in the US White House. Both of the Democratic candidates have pledged to take strong action on climate change. And it means the latest official five-yearly update on climate science will have been published.

Postponement is mostly good news, but when will Cop26 actually happen? The initial rumours were that it would move to the spring or even specifically to May of 2021 but the official announcements from the UK Government and the UN only say that it is being moved to next year and they will consult later about the date.

If it were to end up in the autumn of 2021 we would have effectively skipped a Cop, with a two-year gap between climate talks.

This would be inexcusable at a time of acknowledged climate emergency and just as the 2015 Paris Agreement is supposed to come into force.

Cop26 needs to be in the spring, followed by Cop27 towards the end of the year, so that 2021 can be a year of catch-up on climate action. This has happened before, 2001 had two sets of climate talks.

Japan’s plan very disappointing

Regardless of when the Glasgow Cop takes place, there are some urgent things that can still happen.

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Principal among these is the obligation for each nation or bloc to submit new climate targets. This is part of the process whereby nations are supposed to mark the 2020 official commencement of the Paris Agreement by increasing the pledges they are making to reduce emissions and contribute to the global efforts to cope with climate change.

When the first voluntary deadline went by only three countries had submitted anything. The most recent and most significant one so far was submitted last week by Japan. It is very disappointing, with the world’s fifth largest economy failing to propose any extra action at all between now and 2030.

It clearly makes sense to move Cop26 to next year, but this must not be allowed to quietly slide into creating a two-year gap between climate talks, instead 2021 must be a year of concerted international action on the climate crisis.

Dr Richard Dixon is director of Friends of the Earth Scotland